The former, championing numbers of converts and a passion for evangelizing bordering in some cases on hyper-salesmanship, echoed memories from the clergy in the pulpit in my youth. The latter similarly echoed memories of Rev. George W. Goth at Metropolitan United church in London and Rev. Dr. Andrew Lawson at Timothy Eaton Memorial in Toronto, both churches in which I had worshipped while an undergrad at Western back in the 1960’s. Thoughtful, provocative, penetrating, and engaging spiritual pilgrims both, Goth and Lawson represented an honourable, humane, creative and highly charged and stimulating example of what it means to be a Christian at least to this pre-adult, struggling with an undergraduate program needing to be free of the fear of recriminations from a mother under whose metaphoric sword I laboured, writhing to be unfettered.
However, back in the 1960’s I was clearly not anticipating, at least consciously, a pursuit of theology studies. It was not until following graduation from Ottawa U. with an M.Ed. in 1972 that I considered that prospect, only to be thwarted by my then spouse, who after seven years of marriage, declared unequivocally, “If you go into the ministry, I will divorce you!” Clearly based on a deep-seated boundary of a refusal to be a “clergy wife,” the statement, contextualized for me in a manner similar to my father’s, “good boys don’t leave their marriage,” as we sat on the back steps when I was fourteen and deeply disturbed by the antics of his spouse, my mother, silenced my declared aspiration, underpinned by acceptance at both Emanuel College and Knox College, on the day of that declaration.
Lest it be ignored or denied that conflict cannot erupt in a liberal theological seminary, Trinity was a cauldron of conflict throughout the time of my enrolment, 1989-91. From the outside, as a mere student, it appeared that something had occurred between the then Dean, Dr. Peter Slater, and a recently appointed professor, Dr. Marsha Hewitt, statements made to which such offence was taken that a Human Rights Tribunal hearing resulted in the dean’s retirement and the professor’s tenure. Feminism, a rising tide in church history, had already turned the institution’s public and political “eye” on the need to grow the number of female clergy and bishops, as well as faculty members, and seemed to have precipitated some backlash for which a serious price was paid in human lives. The Field Education faculty member was a woman, the clergy in the church to which I was assigned as an intern was a woman, and a professor in Ethics was the same Dr. Hewitt. My original supervisor at the Toronto Institute for Human Relations was also a woman. It is certainly not that any of these women warranted anything but exemplary reviews for their performance; and as students, we were quite conscious of the growing “political power” of women within the institution.
Nevertheless, on reflection, these nearly three decades later, there was a stridency in many of their individual approaches, attitudes and interactions. Perhaps it is legitimate to argue that, as the first wave of a tidal wave of rising political power among women, inside and outside the church, these women believed that only through a determined stridency, even officiousness and hauteur would they break through the wall of the centuries-long patriarchy. Pride, linked with a seething cauldron of anger, suspicion and determination to “break” the hierarchy of male dominance was not a “dynamic” or a thrust to which those in power were either trained or accustomed to adjust to, accommodate or even to negotiate with.
In fact, the obvious conflictual currents that surfaced within the Trinity community, as well as throughout the Toronto School of Theology, the federation of theological schools of all Christian denominations at the University of Toronto, could have, and even should have offered the glaring, and tragically missed, opportunity for Trinity faculty and administration to design and conduct seminars in gender conflict resolution. It is not as if there have not been centuries of evidence of various kinds of social, theological, political and fiscal conflict within the institution of the Anglican church in Canada and worldwide. These historic chapters did not, and may well not even yet, have prompted deliberate curricular requirements in conflict resolution.
This tragic omission of curricular design has failed graduates of Trinity for decades. More importantly, the tragic blindness, denial and oversight of “troubling” or “dark” or conflict-seeded incidents inside the church is among its most serious theological, spiritual, ethical and moral failures. Whether such “sins of omission” (as the Prayer Book words) apply to other denominations is outside the purview of this piece.
However, the failure to address the learning, preparatory and developmental process of preparing postulants for what the church terms “holy orders” by formally and informally addressing the potential for conflict that exists within each and every single parish, mission, cathedral and diocese is a failure that speaks to a broader issue: the notion that the institution is apparently deemed either incapable or unwilling to successfully confront conflict in the open. Left to the privacy of the responsible hierarch’s office (Dean, Canon, Archbishop, Bishop, Primate), as if all conflicts were a matter of “personnel confidentiality” and therefore legally and ethically and morally cordoned off from open discussion, debate, and even canonical court deliberation, this perspective neglects what can easily be seen to be “organizational” issues beneath and beyond the private personal interactions between clergy and faculty, or between clergy and laity or even between clergy and clergy.
The very fact that the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal was asked to rule, and not the faculty association, or some deliberately determined and assigned conflict-resolution tribunal inside the college, seems indicative of either the failure of the college or it’s resistance to resolving the conflict through the available professional, intellectual and the ethical competencies inside the college. Of course, another of the ambiguous relationships that generates tension, and sometimes conflict, is that between the college(s) and the diocese, in this case of Toronto. Resorting to the legal profession, as if it were the epitome of conflict- resolution processes, insights, training and professional competencies is another of the many withdrawals for which the church must accept responsibility, given ‘her’ failure to engage in the public square as a force incarnating the gospel of the New Testament.
There is a saying in Matthew 22:21, attributed to Jesus that reads:
Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s…
Also, in response to Pontius Pilate, Jesus is reported to have uttered these words, (John 18:36): My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews…
Clearly, veering far away from recommending or engaging in conflict between the church and the state, these utterances have provided foundational support for the political and ostensibly ethical and legal formulation that has become the fulcrum of many of the public debates in the west in contemporary political culture.
From the perspective of a twenty-first-century septuagenarian, this “divide” is, in a word, unsustainable, either in the ideal or in the fact. We live lives that flow, sometimes gently and sometimes turbulently in the energy of the lives of others, themselves, also navigating within the flowing now of each moment. That moment, in the fullness of its meaning and definition, can never be stripped of any of either its spiritual or its political implications, ramifications, foundations and reverberations. As a singular body/mind/spirit in the vortex of winds of thought, history, theology, ethics and relationships, we all face decisions that demand the totality of our comprehension, beliefs, attitudes and ethical mandates. The question of the influence of any contemporary or previously extant cultural practices, attitudes, beliefs and rituals and their relevant impact on the “church” whether at the parish, college, diocese or national level has bedevilled theologians and especially ecclesial hierarchies for centuries.
Ranging from the seemingly abhorrent disdain for the indigenous culture, beliefs, practices and rituals of First Nations families and communities (considered savages) exhibited by “Christian missionaries” who vehemently worked to “convert” to Christianity those families and their children to the corporate sycophancy of contemporary church leaders with the affluent in each and every parish, the church’s hands are drowning in the blood of guilt of having abused both indigenous cultures and the contemporary underclass of the poor, the dispossessed and the “unfit” as seen by both the culture and the church. In the former instance, this abuse was obviously overt, conscious, contemplated and deliberate while in the latter instance, it can be argued that it was more unconscious, less contemplated and less obviously deliberate.
The rationalization of this latter characterization, however, is open to legitimate and vociferous dispute. Dependency on those fat cheques, and the complicity with the attitudes, values, perceptions and beliefs of those affluent, whose names adorn many of the legacies in many of the sanctuaries, is, however, not an excuse for the willful succumbing of the hierarchical, military, corporate and superior “class” attitudes, perceptions and beliefs that come, often invisibly, glued to those cheques. This distinguishing between the rich and the poor as “influencers” on specifically Anglican ecclesial culture, whether practiced in the colleges and seminaries, the parishes and missions, or the cathedrals and church offices, is not a mere distinction without a difference. In fact, it is emblematic of a way of doing business: that way embraces and even enforces a degree of political correctness that substitutes spiritual discipline with perfectionism. And perfectionism, as a political modus operandi, simply will not tolerate “mess” or “conflict” or ambiguity or a process that seeks the truth, from all participants regardless of their perspective.
It was in a conversation with the than bishop, now deceased, midway in my first year at seminary, that I heard these words: “You know, John, people just cannot stand too much reality!” Whether borrowed from T.S. Eliot or not is mute; what is not mute or insignificant is the potential for spiritual demise, certainly individually and even corporately, of the application of such a perspective to the processes, both theoretical and processes of the Christian church. If the church is to be an attempt to incarnate the spirit and the letter of the words and mentorship of Jesus Christ Resurrected, as this naïve, idealistic and somewhat irascible then postulant, and later ordained, and later resigned individual seeking to find God in my life, and thereby to “live a life more abundantly” as a Christian conceptualized, then the pursuit of even the most difficult truths, realities, complexities, whether they be of a light or dark nature are the sine qua non of any discipleship.
The historic factum of academic study, based exclusively on empirical, verifiable data, and the “scientific research methodology” for the formulation of theses, in preparation for their defence, which has inevitably mutated into the seminaries, seems to have awarded much less “heft” than those processes of the intuition, the imagination and the creative spirit on which any search for God has to be based at least in part. Seeking the truth, even and especially in the most difficult circumstances, conflicts, disputes and rivalries, cannot be relegated to the “superior mental faculties” nor the superior spiritual insight of the bishops, archbishops and primates. This ecclesial institution is not an army, complete with court martial procedures and directives; nor is it an emergency room, based on an historical encyclopedia of case notes; nor is it a legal courtroom, operated on the premise of a wise judge, and the relevant case law from the archives. It is also not a tax accountant’s process of tabulating profit and loss, benefits and costs, in some mathematical or algebraic, or algorithmic pattern. It is also not a dentist’s laboratory, where the practitioner is schooled in searching for and finding a cavity, or a root canal, or a broken tooth all of them needing immediate intervention and repair.
How decisions are arrived at, both by individuals and by group processes is at least as important and relevant to the outcome as is the culture on which those decisions and processes are based. Deliberately, or less caustically inadvertently, segregating the church’s anatomy, physiology, history, culture, psychology and politics, and environment off from the daily activities, and their implications on the lives of those seeking God inside the parameters of the institution seems to result in a reductionism that prevails in most of our contemporary conflict: the empirical facts of the moment of the incident, the objective presentation of those fact, by competing parties/interests and the rulings by a group of peers or by an agreed selected individual. Quickly and summarily are analogies, comparisons, cultural and contextual influences are deemed outside the purview of the investigation, and certainly of the formal deliberations.
To succumb to the “state” (or Caesar, or civil or legal or political) definitions of the place of the church within the culture is a serious default, potentially in favour of avoiding conflict with the public square generally, a default to which the church need not default. Nor is the church mandated to default. The Roman church, conversely, has adopted such a high profile in the public square over the issue of abortion/a woman’s right of choice, advocating for Right to Life aphorisms, while obviously remaining silent and absent on the issue of privatizing of prisons, or of the enlistment of capital punishment. However, as an institutional entity that has traditionally and persistently sought and found the middle way, the moderating path, between two competing and conflicting forces, the Anglican/Episcopal church, worldwide, has a canyon of opportunities, within its walls and by extension beyond, to incarnate and thereby illustrate and demonstrate its reconciling learnings and experience.
And one of the significant and continuous public “files” on which the church has defaulted, seemingly by refusing to face the obligations inherent to the male leadership for both the insurgent feminism and for the potential for future male clergy. Vacillating on the waves of the energy within the public square, from patriarchy to insurgent and inevitable strident feminism, without a formal discussion of the implications on the individuals in the pews, and on the ways in which the organization operates, without owning a specific masculine and honourable and worthy perspective, the male hierarchy simply went awol.
The example at Trinity is only one such example. There are many others, for example, the misandrist female clergy who have dismissed or refused to incorporate male acolytes, or interns, or even associates, in a culture in which such “abuse” is passed over by congregations steeped in and marinated in a jar of Anglican culture. The complicity of misandrist female clergy with their female peers if and when a complaint is unearthed, regardless of the veracity of the complaint the context of the complaint, and the sources and veracity of those sources.
And this spineless deferral by the male patriarchy to the insurgent feminist tide, whether conscious or unconscious, deliberate or inadvertent, is one of many avoidances, denials and failures to face the rigorous demands of real lives lived in real time, under the roof of the Christian ecclesial sanctuary.